5 ways to fight the HUGE carbon footprint of the internet

A picture of the earth covered in clouds made from gas and trees

by Helen Khan

June 15th 2023

Published in Web

8 min read


    What can we do about the internet’s environmental cost with its enormous carbon footprint?

    The internet is one of the most amazing inventions of our time. To us, that’s an understatement. Without it, we wouldn’t have a business. We are digital wizards, after all. But behind all of the websites we create, the campaigns we run and the cat memes I send to everyone, there is a very real, very large problem. The internet has a carbon footprint — and it’s huge.

    Join us as we discuss the environmental problem of the internet, give our top 5 tips for changes you can make to your website and explore brands that have already made changes.

    How big is the internet’s carbon footprint?

    Amongst the 5.18 billion global internet users (64.6% of the world’s population), the average internet user spends 6h 34m online daily — through their phones, computers, TVs and tablets — that’s a lot of usage.

    With phrases like “the cloud” and “web”, we tend to forget that the internet is hosted on physical servers. And these servers produce a tremendous amount of carbon emissions.

    The internet currently contributes 1.6 billion annual tons of greenhouse gas emissions and is estimated to rise by 14% by 2040.

    If it were a country, the internet would be the world’s 5th largest emitter of greenhouse gasses. And it’s continuing to grow as more of the world joins us online.

    A laptop with dark gas clouds coming from it to suggest carbon emissions

    What about this website?

    If we are warning you about internet usage, should you stop reading? The answer is no, and here’s why:

    Because our website has a low carbon footprint.

    Every time someone visits our website, it produces 0.67g of Carbon Dioxide. Compared to a minimalistic website such as Google with a significantly lower carbon footprint (only 0.2g of CO2 per visit), we have a way to go, but we are working on reducing it.

    To put it all into context, let’s use the popular online news channel Buzzfeed, and fast-fashion retailer, Pretty Little Thing as examples:

    • Buzzfeed’s website produces 2.59g of CO2 per view — without green hosting — which totals 310.49kg per year in CO2 — that’s 2.07 sumo wrestlers — 42,072 cups of tea — 332 billion bubbles — 15 trees — and will drive our Tesla 4,183 km which is enough to take us to the North Pole.
    • Pretty Little Thing’s website produces 3.28g of CO2 per view — without green hosting — which totals as 393.92kg per year in CO2 — that’s 2.63 sumo wrestlers — 53,377 cups of tea — 421 billion bubbles — 18 trees — and 5,308km.

    Both would produce 9% less CO2 if they opted for green servers instead (Website Carbon).

    As Buzzfeed has 98.8 million monthly website visitors and Pretty Little Thing has 6.2 million, that’s a terrifying amount of CO2. These are dirty websites.

    So, what can we do to reduce our carbon footprint?

    Well, there are a few things. Here is a list of our top 10 things you can do to your website to reduce your carbon footprint:

    Action 1: Check with your web hosting provider to see if they offer green data centres. If not, consider switching to a provider that does. We use AWS’ green data centre in Ireland.

    Data centres are responsible for much of the internet’s energy consumption and carbon footprint. A typical data centre emits about as much carbon dioxide yearly as 20,000 cars.

    However, several popular data centres have been using measures to reduce their environmental impact. The first thing you can do is switch to a green data centre.

    A green data centre is powered by renewable energy — typically solar or wind power. This means that the internet services provided by the data centre are entirely emissions-free.

    Not only is this good for the environment, but it’s also good for your business. Green data centres tend to be more reliable than traditional data centres because they are not reliant on fossil fuels. They also often come with a lower price tag.

    Since 2019, Google has pledged to make the internet more sustainable, setting the goal for its data centres to produce “100% 24/7 carbon-free energy by 2030”. Amazon Web Services (AWS) have pledged to run all centres on 100% renewable energy by 2025.

    A green data centre with trees surrounding it on top of a large data chip

    Action 2: Use a network of servers to deliver website content based on geographic location. We use CloudFlare.

    This is called a Content Delivery Network (CDN). They work by caching static content (images and videos) on servers worldwide.

    If someone in New York views your website, but your business is based in London, a CDN will use their New York server location to provide the page content.

    By reducing the distance that content needs to travel (from a server to your browser), you reduce the number of machines involved in transmitting that same content. The fewer machines, the fewer emissions are produced.

    Also, most CDNs provide the ability to compress and optimise assets, reducing their size.

    Action 3: Make sure your website is serving up content in the most efficient way.

    One of the best ways to reduce your website’s carbon footprint is to optimise it for performance. By optimising your website, you can reduce the amount of data that needs to be transferred and, as a bonus, reduce the amount of time your users have to wait for your content to load.

    Optimising your website takes two forms:

    1. Compressing your images and providing the appropriate sizes. We highly recommend against using full-resolution sizes to display images — nobody needs a 3000px photo. Instead, ensure you serve image sizes suitable for the device the user is viewing.
    2. Compressing your code to remove unnecessary content and code. This is called minifying and it means stripping out white space, comments, unnecessary characters and unused code. This kind of content is there to help humans when they are writing the code, but machines discard this information, rendering it useless on a live site. By stripping it out, you’ll save hundreds, if not thousands, of megabytes per page load.

    Both of these actions have some added benefits — not only are you reducing emissions, but you will be pleasing Google and your user with super-fast page loads. This will help your organic SEO and search rankings. Did you notice our website loads really fast?

    Action 4: Keep it static.

    When you start developing your website, it’s tempting to jump to the latest Content Management System (CMS) or a website builder — like Webflow and Square Space. But sometimes, even the most beautiful websites can be built with minimal technology.

    CMS and website frameworks use considerable processing power to build and serve pages. If you can build a site without these frameworks, you’ll save kilograms of CO2 from your yearly output.

    Static websites don’t use a CMS but are built once and stored on the server in a flat format. When a visitor arrives at the site, the page doesn’t need to be calculated/constructed again but is sent directly to the user’s browsers — saving a lot of computing power and the CO2 it creates.

    Also, they are often faster to load than sites that need to be constructed on the fly.

    Action 5: Not a picture paints a thousand words, more like words can paint a picture.

    We all love images and videos. They can be great for telling stories. They can entertain, inspire, and delight. But they also need a lot of processing power — both from a data and a power perspective.

    Displaying high-resolution images and video causes your visitors’ machine to engage its graphics rendering chips, which increases the amount of power their machine uses (mine often sounds like it is going to ‘take off’). And more power = more emissions.

    But that is not all. Video hosting companies must keep massive data centres online 24/7/365 to process and display these videos to users. And as we have mentioned before, data centres can be very costly to the environment.

    Consider using compressed images instead of videos, wherever possible. If videos are short or loop, consider converting them into a GIF. This will prevent your users’ machines from engaging their video processing chips.

    And finally, make sure when you use video that you serve them up from a provider with a CDN — such as Vimeo and BrightCove. That means when you need to send a video, it’s at least coming from a server close to home rather than jumping halfway around the world.

    Brands that have made epic changes.

    A few brands out there have already lowered their impact by extraordinary amounts but here are a few honourable mentions:

    Organic Basics — this sustainable underwear brand has developed an entire low-impact website to reduce carbon emissions by 70% more than its regular website — visit here to learn how.

    Ecover — to match their ethos of combating the environmental impact of our household products, they have created a lower emissions website by optimising images/content and removing videos.

    Check out some more beautifully designed low-impact websites at Lowww.

    A screenshot of Organic Basics' low impact website showing a product page for bras

    We can’t all be perfect.

    But as long as we all work on ways to minimise our impact, we are making a positive difference. If it is not possible to make changes to your existing website, there are other ways you can combat your impact by joining offsetting programmes like Ecologi, Earthly or Play It Green.

    Book a free consultation with Ryan (our CTO and resident eco-warrior) to find out how we can help create a more sustainable online ecosystem for future generations.